Students from Knoxville high schools, including Austin-East and Fulton, attended the 12th annual UT Project GRAD Summer Institute during the month of June.

Students studied cancer genetic markers in the STEM education method through science, technology, engineering and math. They also worked on written and verbal communications as a part of the program.

"We have one big, primary goal," said Steven Waller, co-director of Project GRAD. "And that goal is to give students the opportunity to test-drive a college experience."

There are two one-week sessions during which students take a series of morning and afternoon classes. Math and English courses are designed to educate students one level above their regular standings in high school. In addition to those courses, participants take a two-hour college research skills course that is managed by Hodges Library.

"The library has a phenomenal outreach effort and fortunately we were able to collaborate with them." Waller said. "The course teaches students how to properly use the library and not to be afraid of using the tools.

"They're taught how to use the tools to do college research and then they also end up turning in a research paper at the end of the week."

In addition to courses, students volunteered at the Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED), Knox Area Rescue Ministries, the Phyllis Wheatly Center and Odd Felloe Cemetery.

"For a lot of students it is a time when they discover college is not like high school," said Ronni Chandler, associate director of Project GRAD. "The great thing about Summer Institute is that it is a taste of what that experience is going to be like for both kids and their families."

There are several Project GRAD programs across the country, the first began in Houston, Texas in 2001. UT has spent about $1.1 million on this initiative.

"It's one of the more novel programs in the country," Waller said.

After completing Summer Institute, participants are eligible for a $4,000 scholarship to attend an accredited two-year or four-year college of their choice. Students have to maintain a 2.5 GPA and graduate high school.

"We had a lot of excellent students that really performed well at the institute," Waller said. "I think a lot of students left the institute clear that they wanted to come to school here at The University of Tennessee. But I also think it was a period of reflection for the students."

As for next year's Project Grad Summer Institute, Waller said that, in order to keep up with the changing needs of students, the program may make some adjustments. He maintained that the primary goal, giving high school students a chance to test-drive college, will remain.